I'm just back from Italy, with a couple of nights in London to kick things off. And, as usual, the food mainly fell into the category of More, Please. (Like New Orleans, it's not impossible to get a bad meal in Italy, but the odds are in your favor.) Plenty of tales to be told, but choosing at random, pizza in Rome is an easy place to start.
Yes, pizza began in Naples but Rome has taken to it with full abandon, and it's everywhere. Interestingly, there is, in effect, a daytime pizza and an evening pizza, each different. And please note that both of them are eaten by Romans, not just tourists. I dropped by Forno Campo di Fiori, facing the market on Campo del Fiori, (piazza Campo del Fiori, www.fornocampodifiori.com, closed Sunday) and twenty feet from the entrance, two elegantly dressed businessmen were standing, chowing down on some midmorning pizza. After all, when all you had for breakfast was a cup of espresso and perhaps a cornetto, similar to a croissant, you need something for elevenses.
This daytime pizza, known as pizza al taglia, or pizza by the piece, are long rectangles, more than two feet, with a fairly thick crust. Pieces are cut off to order, easy enough to do with a gesture of the thumb and forefinger measuring to the person behind the counter, the price computed by weight. At Forno Campo di Fiori, they're known for their pizza bianca, which is just brushed with olive oil and a light sprinkling of salt, although the pizza rosso, with tomato sauce, is good, too. Visiting a street market invariably produces hunger pangs; the market on Campo di Fiori is, despite what I've read, mostly aimed at locals and has pretty much no food to eat as you walk except fruit and a guy who, in season, squeezes pomegranite juice to order, so the snack is particularly welcome. And eating on the street is very common here, so don't hesitate.
In another neighborhood, Testaccio, I had some pizza margherita, the classic with tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil, in the daytime version, and it was remarkable. Volpetti Piu, via Alessandro Volta 8, just off via Marmorata, has more than just pizza, but it would be hard to get beyond the tangy sauce and perfect mozzarella for me to choose. That visit was part of a tour I took, and there'll be more on that in a further installment.
Why is night's pizza so different? Because it takes a wood-fired oven, and by law, they can't turn on those ovens until 7 p.m. Italians, of course, eat dinner late anyway, so don't bother showing up until around 8; even then, you'll be with other visitors. St. Louisans will be interested to know that these are thinner crusts than even we are accustomed to, and crisper.
The pizza at Pizzeria da Baffetto 2, also near the Campo del Fiori at Piazza del Teatro Pompeo 18, arrives uncut (but served with a knife and fork - remember most Europeans don't eat it with their fingers) and delicious. I opted for some salami as a topping, sliced very thinly but with a little hit of heat to it. While the pizza was baking, I had fiori di zucca, fried zucchini blossoms, which are filled with a small stick of mozzarella and some anchovy, battered and deep-fried. Glorious, and that was before I realized there was anchovy in there as well, gilding the lily, or, in this case, the zucchini. (There's also the original da Baffetto near Piazza Navona at via del Governo Vecchio 114, www.pizzeriabaffetto.it .)
As a side note, a pleasant conversation with a couple of honeymooners at the next table. She was vegetarian, and I asked about how that was going on the visit. "Fine," she said, "but sometimes I just want a salad, and they're difficult to find." I had just spent a week on a barge trip in northern Italy with a first-rate woman chef working the galley, and the guests and Silvia, the chef, had had a talk about salads, which generally come, if at all, as a side dish to the main course. So I talked about my newfound knowledge, and then she said, "I've gotten a few, at lunch. But they're never dressed. I like Italian dressing. Why can't I get Italian dressing in Italy?"
We talked about the cruets of olive oil and vinegar on the table. These days, it seems to be mostly balsamic, and on the barge, the balsamico was in a spray-top bottle that matched the oil cruet. But "Italian" (picture the fingers doing quotation marks here) dressing? Probably not.